Take, for example, a study conducted by Dutch researchers in which they paired 140 young women for a meal to examine their eating habits as they sat across from each other. While these women enjoyed their food and conversation, the researchers meticulously counted the number of bites that each woman took of her meal. When they compared the number of bites, they found not only that it was very similar for each woman, but also that the rate at which the women ate their meals was similar over the course of their encounter.
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This mimicking could be a good thing if either woman was being mindful of what she was doing and how rapidly her fork completed the circuit between her plate and her mouth. But it also means that if one of these women overeats, her lunch companion might very well overeat, too, a simple social interaction that could have a surprising amount of influence.
Also demonstrating how social situations can interact with our personalities to lead to unhealthy weight behaviors, a team of researchers used a questionnaire to identify individuals who were "people pleasers." You know these people. You may even be one of them. If this is the case, you can indeed empathize with their strong desire to maintain harmony in social gatherings.
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But this study showed that you might be doing them a huge favor by not offering them that bowl of unhealthy snacks. (Check out these 22 healthy snacks under 300 calories.) The researchers found that people pleasers tended to eat more of the food they were offered, whether they were actually hungry for it or not. These study subjects, it turned out, were simply reacting to a situation where social eating was "expected" in terms of conforming to the norm. And it doesn't take too many of these gatherings before their waistlines start paying the price.
The thing is, these social situations are not at all uncommon. The same factors pervade the most common encounters we have with our friends such as heading out to grab a bite to eat or meeting at a friend's apartment for a birthday celebration. When we are with our friends, whether we are conscious of it or not, we are constantly receiving and transmitting cues that indicate the expected norm. And we might be having such a good time that we don't even realize what is happening on our plates and forks, or in our mouths.
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In these social situations, simply saying no to a drink or hors d'oeuvre may feel as if you are committing a faux pas and may be met by such responses as "Jane thought you loved her pecan pie! " or "its just one drink! Why don't you toast with us anymore?"
The trick is to be prepared. It's good to go in with a list of scripts you can use as your "emergency exits" from these social obligations. Here are a few that might work for you:
"These hors d'oeuvres are too good! I am cutting myself off to save room for the lovely dinner!"
"That looks fantastic! Unfortunately, my doctor won't let me have that. Sad but true!"
"I would love to have a drink, but I have to go back into work later. Have to stay sharp!"
Come up with your own and practice them until you are comfortable with them. If you go into potentially problematic situations with a game plan, you may be surprised to find how easy it is to make healthier choices. (Try these 10 ingredient swaps for better mental health.)